Interview 200mph Susan Robertson

July 28, 2005
By Ken Faught

Susan Robertson has paired up with the Faulkner Livingston Team to go after speed records riding a Makita-Suzuki Hayabusa.
Susan Robertson has paired up with the Faulkner Livingston Team to go after speed records riding a Makita-Suzuki Hayabusa.

This past year at the Indianapolis 500 a woman named Danica Patrick received a lot of international attention. Not just because she was a woman participating in a male-dominated sport, but because she was fast. Fast enough to put her race car at the front of the starting grid in the most-famous car race in the United States.

More and more women are finding their way into motorsports, and motocycles are no exception. After all, the adrenalin rush is the same regardless of gender. It is that adrenalin rush that has drawn Susan Robertson into the nostalgic world of land speed racing, and she has taken a solid and aggressive approach. Not since 1978, when Marcia Holley went 229.361 in Don Vesco’s streamliner, has a woman been timed at over 200 mph on two wheels, and never on an open wheeled bike.

Although she has only been competing for two years, she recently became the world’s fastest woman in open wheeled motorcycle racing when she posted a 205.345mph run on the race course at El Mirage, California. Credit July 17, 2005 as the date which history was made, but now she wants to go faster. The opportunity will come in a few weeks when Susan Robertson takes her Falkner/Livingston-backed Team Makita Suzuki Hayabusa to the famous Salt Flats in Bonneville, Utah. It’s on this legendary race track that she hopes to beat her own personal best and get into the 210mph range.

We recently caught up with the female speedster at her home in southern California to learn more about her past, her present and her future. She’s funny, witty, and a complete character. She’s also got an incredible mind for marketing and her good looks make her a sponsor’s dream. So talented, in fact, that she will be presenting the Pole Position trophy on July 30 in San Jose, California, for the San Jose Grand Prix – a ChampCar event.

MotorcycleUSA: How did you get involved in the sport?

Fast Female: Susan Robertson - Land Speed Record Holder
July 17, 2005 is the day Susan Robertson became the world’s fastest woman in open wheeled motorcycle racing posting 205.345mph run on the race course at El Mirage, California.

Susan Robertson: I met Paul and Becca Livingston in November of 2003 through a mutual friend. At that time, they were searching for a female rider to ride one of their 50cc record holding Aprilla bikes. They had heard about my success in go-karting and they were also aware of my riding experience both on dirt and the street. They asked if I would be interested in the world of land speed racing and the possibility of breaking a record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. As soon as I heard the words motorcycle and speed in the same sentence, I was very intrigued.

MCUSA: What has been your attraction to land speed racing?

SR: Land speed racing is a unique venue that combines mechanical talent, aerodynamic knowledge, rider ability, head scratching, team collaboration, and a strange absence of fear. Plus we get to go as fast as we want without having to worry about getting pulled over!

MCUSA: Have you done any other type of racing in the past?

SR: I’ve done speed skiing for the Budweiser water ski team as well as three years of go-kart racing throughout California. After successfully chasing karting championships for three years, I decided to sell everything and buy my first street bike in August of 2003 – which was a 2003 Yamaha R6. It was my intention to take the R6 to the track and learn how to road race – but that goal got diverted after I met the Livingston’s and caught salt fever.

MCUSA: What is the biggest misperception of land speed racing?

SR: I would have to say the biggest misperception is that it is easy to go fast. Many people are not aware that the ever- changing conditions including weather, surface integrity, altitude, traction issues, and rider awareness/ability make chasing records an inexact science to say the least. When you combine those variables along with your average speed of two different runs – well, that definitely changes how the final speed is computed.

MCUSA: What was your first record, and how did you get it?

Fast Female: Susan Robertson - Land Speed Record Holder
Robertson bought an R6 that she started racing after trading in all her go-kart equipment. In October 2004 she found herself racing a Faulkner-Livingston backed Honda CBR600RR at Bonneville.

SR: Soon after I met Paul & Becca Livingston, I decided to go through the experience of running my R6 in the 650cc Production class so that I would be ready to go when they called upon me to ride one of their bikes. In May of 2004, I took the R6 to my first SCTA event out in El Mirage, California and became hooked after my first run down the dry lake bed. Due to licensing procedures, I had to keep my first run at or below 135mph and then could progressively move up into higher speeds as the licensing brackets allowed.

By the end of July, I was pushing the R6 as hard as possible and was prepared for Speed Week in Bonneville in August. I loaded the bike into the trailer along with my friend Bob Hill and we drove out to the salt flats with a box of gears, a Mychron Gold data acquisition system, a tool box and hopes that I would be able to obtain a record in the 650cc Production class – which was set at 161.156mph in 1992. By the end of the 2nd day of racing, I had a run of 167.900mph, which I backed up the next day with a slower run of 162.29mph for a new record of 165.096mph in the class.

MCUSA: How did you link up with Team Falkner-Livingston?

SR: As I went through the 2004 land speed racing season with the R6 on my own, Faulkner-Livingston switched their focus from running in the 50cc class to the 125cc and 650cc classes – which they already had riders for. In October of 2004, the team invited me to the World Finals in Bonneville to ride a Honda CBR 600 RR in the Production class and to be a possible backup rider for their nitrous fueled Honda CBR 600 RR bike. Going into the 2005 season with Faulkner-Livingston riding a Makita-Suzuki Hayabusa is something that I am extremely grateful for and proud to be associated with.

MCUSA: When did you start thinking about the 200mph mark?

SR: When the team received confirmation from Makita-Suzuki that a Suzuki Hayabusa was going to be part of our stable for 2005. We sat down and started looking at the records in the 1350cc class and came to the realization that no woman has gone over 200mph on an open wheel motorcycle. It was like a lightbulb going off. As soon as that happened, we knew as a team that it was a goal that we were going to work towards.

MCUSA: Is it an advantage or disadvantage being a woman in this sport?

Fast Female: Susan Robertson - Land Speed Record Holder
Once Robertson and her team confirmed that they would be racing a Suzuki Hayabusa in the 2005 season, they realized that no woman had broke the 200mph barrier in the 1350cc class. “It was like a lightbulb going off. As soon as that happened, we knew as a team that it was a goal that we were going to work towards.”

SR: It is a definite advantage from an aerodynamic perspective (just ask Jason McVicar!) – especially since I’m only 5’8″ and 120lbs. It is also a nice marketing package for sponsors. The only disadvantage I can think of is that since I tend to be more high-profile, any errors or mistakes I make are noticed pretty quickly. So, let’s not talk about exactly how I ended up under a bike in the McDonald’s parking lot last month, ok? (laugh)

MCUSA: Did you ever think you would be the world’s fastest women on a motorcycle?

SR: I am a firm believer in self-fulfilling prophecy’s or the concept of consciously creating our destiny through goals and positive thinking. As soon as we discovered that no woman has gone over 200mph on an open wheeled motorcycle, I knew in my mind that it would happen. And the funny thing is that during the run last Sunday at El Mirage on Hank Booth’s bike, I was so busy making sure the bike was working properly that when I looked at the GPS and it said 210mph – it wasn’t mind blowing, instead it was more like, ‘huh, look at that, I’m doing what I thought I was going to do’. It is amazing what we can accomplish when we allow our minds to visualize goals and dreams.

MCUSA: Who is Hank Booth and how did he help you in this quest?

SR: Hank Booth is an amazing bike builder and racer from Bozeman, Montana with Arcane Motorsports. He has a reputation for huge horsepower bikes, including a 701hp Hayabusa. Hank was kind enough to allow me the opportunity to ride his ‘Original Ghetto’ bike, a 450hp turbo Hayabusa. The bike was stable as a rock and easy to ride – a testament to his skill and knowledge in building land speed bikes.

MCUSA: What is the biggest challenge with land speed racing?

SR: Keeping the power to the ground is one of the biggest challenges, as well as tire integrity as speeds get faster and faster.

MCUSA: What is it like riding on the salt at Bonneville?

SR: The surface at Bonneville is like no other I’ve seen. It is almost like being on another planet. I’ve seen the salt with two inches of water across it from a sudden thunderstorm and the next day it was completely dry. The salt is a bit slippery upon take-off on the larger bikes, but is fairly smooth throughout the entire course.

MCUSA: What scares you the most about the sport?

SR: As the open wheeled bikes continue to push the bar higher and higher, we need to find a solution to the tire integrity issue. I can’t imagine having a tire failure on an open wheeled bike going 255mph plus.

MCUSA: Canadian Jason McVicar has played a key role in your race program with Team Falkner Livingston. What have you learned from this multi-time land speed record holder?

Breaking the 200mph barrier has opened doors for Robertson  and she looks forward to breaking even more records in the future.
Breaking the 200mph barrier has opened doors for Robertson, and she looks forward to breaking even more records in the future.

SR: What I’ve learned from Jason is that even the best of the best can still be surprised once in awhile. Jason is a very talented rider with many records under his belt, and he is still a down to earth, fun guy to be around. When he loaned me his Yamaha R1 last October at the World Finals to take a few runs down the salt and I beat his own record, he was very humble and gracious about it.

MCUSA: Team Falkner Livingston has contributed to or owns almost 30 land speed records and is one of the most-respected groups in this extreme sport. What’s it like riding for such a high-profile team that has backing from Makita Suzuki?

SR: One of the best things about being a rider for Falkner-Livingston is the ‘No Drama’ rule. In other words, we have all come together as a team to collaborate on mutual goals, and those who have a need to bring drama into the team are not going to stay around for very long. We have great relationships with each other, and no single person is considered ‘the star’, because we all contribute our individual talents and abilities towards team goals.

MCUSA: Tech inspection plays a very significant role in the safety and the credibility of the sport. How difficult is it to get a highly modified bike through tech inspection?

SR: The technical inspection process is an essential part of land speed racing, and I don’t consider it ‘difficult’ – even for highly modified bikes. I think that the SCTA/BNI inspectors do everything they possibly can to bring a standard of safety into the sport, and I know they are constantly examining their processes for safety improvement and that involvement is much appreciated.

MCUSA: Who is the greatest land speed racer of all-time?

SR: Rollie Free – who stripped down to his tight fitting swimming shorts in 1948 and laid flat on his Vincent HRD Black Shadow to run 150.313mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. When I think about the motorcycle technology in 1948 compared to today’s bike – that was quite an accomplishment in land speed racing. You also have to give the guy credit for stripping off all of his clothes to eliminate any drag factor that may have occurred with his clothes on. I heard he even put Vaseline all over his body – ugh. You won’t find me trying this tactic!

MCUSA: Speed Week is coming up during the middle of August in Wendover, Utah at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats. Do you expect any significant records to fall?

SR: There are several teams trying to get a 600cc bike to run 200mph – which could happen in August. The 1350cc class will be very busy with entries from multiple teams and individuals including Falkner-Livingston, Hank Booth, and John Noonan. I am hoping to break a record as well as bump up my overall top speed.

MCUSA: Popularity seems to be rising in this sport, and attendance has never been better from a participant standpoint. How has that helped you get more respect among other forms or motorcycle racing?

SR: I agree that popularity is rising in the sport of land speed racing, but I’m not so sure about the respect factor! (laughter) Accomplishing the goal of running over 200mph as a female has opened a few more doors as far as sponsorship and opportunity goes, which has been terrific.

Fast Female: Susan Robertson - Land Speed Record Holder
The wide expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats will be the setting for Roberston’s attempt to crack into the 210mph range on the Hayabusa.

MCUSA: How can people learn more about land speed racing?

SR: You can go to a great website that is full of information.

MCUSA: What is the most-impressive thing you’ve ever seen in land speed racing?

SR: I am still amazed by the diesel trucks with the huge motors behind the cab with multiple turbos blubbering down the course reaching speeds in excess of 250mph. I can’t imagine anything with less streamlining than those things.

MCUSA: Do you think you will ever pilot a streamliner?

R: I’m always open to looking at any opportunity that may arise.

MCUSA: How fast is too fast?

SR: I’m not sure. The sky is the limit as long as we are mitigating risk as much as possible and no one is getting injured.

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